When I was thirteen years old, I took a trip that changed my life. After a summer spent constructing awkward Spanish phrases I was ready to board the plane to Nicaragua. A beautiful country, Nicaragua is home to rain forests, lakes and more poverty than most of us will experience in our lifespan. Not exactly what one would call a prime vacation spot, but I was headed there anyway. And I wasn’t alone. My dad and two Speech-Language Pathology students from the University of Northern Iowa were coming too. Although I was the youngest of the group, I was far from unprepared. My suitcase was filled with bug spray, and sunscreen. I thought I was ready for anything.
After a day of plane rides, we crashed at a family run hotel. We grabbed some sleep before starting our day at Tésoros de Díos, a school for children with developmental delays. Tésoros had a mission; to help those in need, no matter what. While there, we met a boy who survived only by virtue of his brainstem. Because of this, he would have frequent seizures and was extremely delayed. During the seizures his mother would hold him and, through tears, she would sing to him. Through a translator, she told us that doctors had told her that her son would never live to his first birthday. Her son was eleven years old.
Our last location was Hógar Bélén. When you picture an orphanage in the third world, Hógar Bélén is it. One boy was kept in a cage because the staff didn’t know how to control him. Another girl weighed 40 pounds at 17. But, in small pockets, there was joy. Fabiola served us tea in upside down teacups. Ruth held my hand as we walked across cement floors, telling me in broken Spanish about her favorite games. When we l had hope for them, hope for the children I’d met and loved. But, when we returned the next year Ruth was no longer with us. She had drunk Bleach left out by staff and died. They made a poster with the pictures they had of her. It contained two photographs. We never saw Brian again, and his mother had stopped singing. Fabiola had been adopted by her drug addicted mother, and Amilkar lay in a crib, listless and cold. Tiny tears squeezed out from the corners of his unseeing eyes, and occasionally he whimpered in pain.
The horror of what we saw didn’t hit me until I came home. Nicaragua taught me life is fragile, life is unexpected and not always fair. The night I arrived home, I held my little sister close and thought how lucky I was. How lucky I was to have a roof over my head, to have running water, electricity. But there was one thing we shared with the Nicaraguans; family. Brian’s mother who brought him to get help even though doctors had told her it was impossible. The women who worked at Hógar Bélén, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to save the children they saw and loved every day. They were there, not because they had to be, but because they cared. Nicaragua taught me that it doesn’t matter the amount you make or your social class; family is family.
And that’s what really matters.
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